Shows & Events
Shows & Events

The national roots of Viennese Actionism

Herman Nitsch. Photo: Julia Spicker

Long before Carolee Schneemann pulled a poem out of her vagina, artists saw the body as a battleground for radical expression. Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Richard Gerstl and other pioneers of early Viennese Modernism depicted the human form as starkly nude and emaciated, exposing its vulnerability to physical and psychological anguish like never before.

But the Viennese Actionists took those ideas even further. The exhibition Body, Psyche and Taboo, opening this month at Vienna’s Museum Moderner Kunst (Mumok), reveals for the first time how artists such as Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Otto Muehl and Günter Brus drew on the art of their revolutionary predecessors to fill almost shamanistic roles as healers of war-torn Austrian society.

Nitsch, who is best known for his performances using blood and dead animals, spoke to us about how Vienna’s turn-of-the century artists inspired his work.

Richard Gerstl, Self-portrait with Palette, 1908. Courtesy Leopold Museum. Photo: Leopold Museum
Richard Gerstl, Self-portrait with Palette, 1908. Courtesy Leopold Museum. Photo: Leopold Museum
The Art Newspaper: What influence did Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka and others have on the Actionists?

Hermann Nitsch: After the stagnancy of art in the interwar period and the reign of fascism, there was barely any avant-garde art. There was a vacuum where nothing was happening. So we were indeed influenced by the radical nature of Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, Gerstl, Freud, Wittgenstein, Trakl, and very much by the Second Viennese School—Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg and Anton Webern. The expressive representation of the body, the potency of the subconscious and the move towards atonality really defined us. We were all influenced by this radical time.

Which one of the early Viennese Modernists influenced you the most?

I have been influenced by so many artists, from the creators of Stonehenge to those who don’t even exist yet. But of the Modernists, I would say Klimt had the strongest impact. His wonderful landscapes function like meditation templates for me. In his paintings, the third dimension is missing in favour of an inconceivable fourth dimension. Space falls away and instead we see a multi-dimensional Orientalist carpet. I also really admire Klimt’s early works—for example, the ceiling paintings he created for the University of Vienna that were later destroyed by the Nazis. They are the most extreme expressions of Jugendstil, bursting with philosophy and metaphysics.

Hermann Nitsch's Material Action No. 14, Cosinus Alpha (17 November 1964) © Bildrecht Wien, 2016. Photo: Mumok
Hermann Nitsch's Material Action No. 14, Cosinus Alpha (17 November 1964) © Bildrecht Wien, 2016. Photo: Mumok
Which of your works will be on show in the Mumok exhibition?

It will feature photos of some of my most extreme performances. Documents from my early body actions and my six-day play, Orgies Mysteries Theatre, will also be included, as will my first big blood painting from the 1960s, which is six metres wide. It is being lent by the Friedrichshof Collection. I think these works, which feature blood, body secretions, flesh and entrails, are very typical of Viennese Actionism. But the roots were already all there. Schönberg’s 1932 opera Moses and Aron incorporated rape, violence and slaughter, as did Kokoschka’s play Murderer, the Hope of Women [1909]. [But] an exhibition on the direct correlation between Viennese Modernism and Actionism is entirely new. It is very appropriate that the show is being staged in Vienna and Mumok, which has always championed Actionism. Under the last administration this care began to wane, but it seems to be changing now. 

• Body, Psyche and Taboo, Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna, 4 March-16 May
Venue details
Museum Moderner Kunst (Mumok)
Museumsplatz 1
Vienna A-1070
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